Hidden Figures: A Lesson In Speaking Up

5 min read

If you’re planning to cozy up to the Academy Awards with a girl in your life this weekend, chances are you may have seen Hidden Figures, the uplifting biopic about three brilliant, belatedly-recognized African American mathematicians employed by the NASA space program in the Jim Crow South: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine (Goble) Johnson, and Mary Jackson. With three Oscar nominations including Octavia Spencer’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the film is chock-full of lessons in leadership qualities every girl (and human) needs in today’s world – assertiveness, allyship, resiliency, and asking for what you need. If you’re looking for an inspirational jumping off point to talk to your girl about speaking up for herself and others, is an excellent conversation starter.

Even if you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s doubtful you missed one of its most powerful scenes, peppered across billboards and trailers – that of mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and her crew of (human) “computers” proudly marching as a team through the halls of NASA to their promoted positions as IBM programmers. Vaughan, who self-advocates for a long-deserved promotion to the role of Supervisor throughout the film, finally receives an offer. It’s a moment of truth, one that speaks to the power of solidarity and the strength of a single voice, when Vaughan ultimately speaks up not only for herself, but her entire team: “I’m not accepting reassignment unless I bring my ladies with me.” Imagine how the world could change if we all had such gumption to speak up for others as well as ourselves!


“I’m not accepting reassignment unless I bring my ladies with me.”


Granted, life does not always go the way of a Hollywood movie, even one based on true events. In the deeply and overtly racist climate of 1961 Virginia, Dorothy easily could have lost her job or worse for positing such an ultimatum. The film, at times, paints a (potentially problematically) rosy picture of the impact of speaking up. For example, current research shows that when black girls speak up, they are often misinterpreted as aggressive and as a result, are disproportionately and unfairly penalized. And all girls are at risk of being labeled “bossy” when they assert themselves. Even as we encourage our girls to speak up, and of course we must, it’s important to be realistic about the potential consequences of doing so – consequences that could impact safety, and may be connected to the identities they hold. We need to have conversations with our girls not only about whether to speak up, but for whom, and why, and what all of us have to lose or gain if we do or don’t.

As you process Hidden Figures and navigate the exciting and sometimes risky terrain of speaking up with your girl, here are five tips to consider:

  1. Acknowledge that it can be scary. Tell her a story of a time you spoke up and it paid off, or it didn’t pay off, but still felt right, and outline the feelings that led up to your choice. Ask her to think about a time she was nervous to speak up, but did it anyway. What did it take to say something, even if she was scared? How did she feel afterwards? Bravery is not the absence of fear…it’s feeling scared and doing it anyway.
  2. Role-play physical and vocal confidence. How we say things is as important as what we say. In preparation for speaking up, help your girl practice open, grounded body language and a clear, firm tone of voice. Point out Mary’s poised posture and firm vocal tone in the courthouse scene, or the way Katherine holds her head high when she responds to a sexist remark with, “It’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” The women in Hidden Figures are case studies in assertive tone of voice and body language.
  3. Speak up, or step aside? Privilege is an important consideration when speaking up. Help your girl think through what she, or others, may have to lose, and what they may have to gain if she raises her voice. Is it worth it? Discuss with your girl how she can use her voice to make space for more marginalized voices. Explore moments in the film when women speak up for women (or don’t), and men speak up for women (or don’t). Ask your girl, “What might have happened if they had said something? What could they have done to support the other character in raising her voice?” Consider that sometimes, the best way to “Speak Up” is to Step Aside and allow space for others to have a voice.
  4. Introverts can speak up, too. Parents often ask if Girls Leadership tools are a good fit for shy or introverted girls. Yes, yes, yes! With a little role-play practice, introverted girls can learn how to speak up successfully. In addition, there are many ways to speak up that do not necessitate face-to-face confrontation. Write a letter, sign a petition, draw a cartoon, or organize a group to take a stand. There are many “behind the scenes” ways that girls of all personality types can make their voices heard in important ways. For inspiration, track the character of Ruth, whose short one-liners subtly undermine the racism directed at Katherine throughout the engineering room scenes. For example, when Mr. Harrison is impressed by Katherine’s mathematics on the chalk-board and demands to know whose work it is, Ruth is the only one to name and give credit to her female counterpart: “Katherine Goble, sir.”
  5. Imagine a world where we all spoke up. One of my favorite themes of the film is the power of imagination to believe in the seemingly impossible. While the theme is most evidently applied in regards to the Space Race, imagining a world without racial segregation is also hinted at in the film. Ask your girl, “What would the world be like if we never spoke up for ourselves? For each other? What would things look like in a world where girls always spoke up? What steps can we take to get there?”  After all, we can’t be what we can’t imagine!

At Girls Leadership we encourage adults to model skills for girls, so before you guide her to take a risk, ask yourself what conversation you’ve been wanting to have and what might be holding you back from speaking up.

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